Sheriff Eli Martin’s investigation of a young woman’s horrific murder ignites the lives of everyone connected to it, especially his own, as he confronts the evil terrorizing the village of Sardis Springs.
It was late afternoon, with the room temperature well over ninety degrees, before Prominence County Sheriff Eli Martin was called to the stand and sworn in to testify for the prosecution against Gerald Hartley. Hartley faced charges of vehicular manslaughter, but so much time had passed since his arrest, there was little public interest in the trial. Most people assumed Hartley was guilty as charged. The few curious spectators seated in the century-old courtroom were outnumbered by a battalion of clattering electric fans working in vain to cool the air on a day recorded later as the hottest in a decade.
The trial was presided over by the honorable Jerome Trimpy, who, at sixty-seven, was still a stickler for tradition and stubbornly sweltered in his judicial robe, while two desk fans on either side of him produced more noise than relief, which only made it harder than usual for him to hear the proceedings.
Eli glanced at the jury box where the unhappy, perspiring jurors were fanning themselves with balsa wood fans branded with the slogan, “Coke Adds Life.” He recognized a few locals and guessed that most of the jury had done business at one time or another with the defendant who owned Gerry’s Ford, the largest car and truck dealership in the county.
Confined to a windowless anteroom all morning with nothing to drink or eat, Eli felt lightheaded as he waited in the witness stand. His uniform clung to him like a second skin.
By contrast, Hartley appeared cool and confidant as did his counsel, Paul Lehman, whose well-earned reputation as a criminal defense attorney impressed even the Harvard Law-educated Judge Trimpy.
While Eli was sequestered waiting for his chance to nail Hartley and call it a day, Paul Lehman had spent the morning dismantling the case against his client, and completely catching David Huston, the newly appointed district attorney, off guard.
Huston had inherited the case only a few weeks earlier, but the evidence appeared so overwhelmingly conclusive that he was confidant Hartley would be convicted.
Choosing comfort over decorum, Huston delivered his opening argument coatless, tieless, and with his shirtsleeves rolled up like a clerk, an offense that Judge Trimpy counted against him. In a perfunctory tone, the young prosecutor summarized the case against Hartley, while the jury fanned themselves, and stole glances at their watches.
“Ladies and gentlemen, on the morning of January 20, a jogger discovered Marie Blankenship’s body face down on the side of the road, where she was thrown after being struck and killed by a motorist, who fled the scene.
“A Lincoln Town Car registered to the defendant, Gerald Hartley, was parked in the woods less than a mile from the scene of the accident. The vehicle’s front end was wrecked.” Here, Huston displayed several 8 X 10 color photos taken at the crime scene. “As you can plainly see, there are traces of blood on the grill—blood that matches Marie Blankenship’s.
“When confronted at his home, Hartley claimed the wrecked car had been stolen off the lot of his Sardis Springs dealership the previous night. When asked why the theft had not been reported at the time, he shrugged, and said that he assumed one of his employees had called it in.
“And finally, ladies and gentlemen,” Huston concluded, “the defendant, Gerald Hartley, has yet to provide an alibi for his whereabouts the night Mrs. Blankenship was struck and left to die by the side of the road.”
By mid-morning, Huston was feeling less confidant as Lehman unequivocally diminished any sympathy for Blankenship, whom the prosecution had deemed a “beacon of her community” and a “gifted educator.” Credible witnesses for the defense described Blankenship as a childless, divorced alcoholic, who routinely walked beside the busy highway—often at night—to buy cheap wine at a convenience store a half mile from the mobile home park where she lived in a run-down doublewide.
Additionally, Lehman and his team presented flip charts filled with traffic flow statistics showing that the highway in question was heavily traveled, and that the “poor woman” could have been struck by any one of a number of vehicles. By the time the noon recess rolled around, Lehman had provided a list of a dozen motorists’ complaints stating that Blankenship’s “nightly forays into traffic” were a menace.
“If the Prominence County Sheriff’s department had followed through on even one of these nuisance reports,” Lehman announced, “and taken some legal means to restrain Mrs. Blankenship for her own protection—for example, arrest her for public intoxication, or better yet, help her get treatment—then, she might still be alive today, and we wouldn’t be here today sweating our asses off trying an innocent man.”
There was a ripple of laughter, which his honor allowed despite the profanity.
Eli was unaware that the court’s mood had shifted in favor of Hartley’s acquittal by the time he took the stand. He fully expected to win the day.
Huston kept his questions brief and allowed the sheriff as much time as he needed to answer.
Eli performed well, stating his answers clearly and concisely. Huston was hopeful that the answer to his final question would clinch his case.
“Sheriff Martin, when you asked the defendant where he was the night Mrs. Blankenship was killed, what did he tell you?”
“Mr. Hartley claimed he was at home asleep,” Eli said.
“And, is it true that no one, not even the defendant’s wife, was able to confirm his alibi?”
“No, sir. Not one person.”
“Thank you, sheriff,” Huston said, and walked back to his seat, pausing midway to address the judge. “I have nothing more, your honor. The prosecution rests.”
“Mr. Lehman,” Trimpy bellowed, looking at his watch.
Lehman wore a tropical weight suit, only a shade lighter than his country club tan. He stood, picked up a folder and sauntered to the witness stand, where he paused dramatically, opened the folder, and removed a piece of paper, which he held up before him.
“Sheriff Martin, is it a true fact that after leaving the Marines in 1969, you spent three months as a psychiatric patient at a VA hospital recovering from what’s known as combat fatigue, or more commonly as shell shock?’”
Huston got to his feet. “Objection, your Honor.
“Sheriff Martin is a fact witness only. His health, mental or otherwise, is not relevant.”
Lehman sighed audibly, and straightened his shoulders. “Your honor, the question goes to the sheriff’s competency," he pointed out, his phrasing only slightly condescending. "Surely, the court recognizes that if the sheriff’s ongoing mental health condition impairs his ability to carry out his official duties to such an extent that he fabricates a charge against an innocent citizen to save his reputation, it begs the ultimate question—is he fit for office?”
“Objection sustained,” the judge said after a thoughtful pause. “Strike the question from the record. The jury is further instructed to ignore the question as well.”
Nevertheless, the damage was done. A seed of doubt was planted. From that moment on—it took less than thirty minutes for Lehman to earn his six-figure fee. He questioned Eli relentlessly, barely letting him answer a question before he asked a follow-up: “Are you positive, sheriff?” Or, “How can you be sure?”
Eli responded to Lehman’s onslaught with red-faced confusion, no longer trusting his memory of events months past. In desperation, he looked to Huston for help, but the district attorney sat slumped in his chair, watching his case fall apart.
The brutal onslaught was later reported by The Prominence Times as “an example of the finest lawyering witnessed in recent history.”
Huston, chastened after witnessing Lehman’s cross-examination of the sheriff, gave a brief closing argument, ending with, “The evidence against Gerald Hartley is rock solid and unequivocally proves that on the night of January 20, 1977, the defendant struck and killed Marie Blankenship, after which he fled the scene, leaving her to bleed to death on the side of the road like an animal. For her sake, and yours, I urge you to hold Gerald Hartley accountable.”
Lehman stood before the jury with his head bowed and his hands clasped behind his back, like a clergyman reflecting quietly before delivering a sermon to his congregation. When he raised his head to speak, he had the entire court’s attention.
“Friends, you heard the sheriff’s testimony—there is not one shred of concrete evidence to tie my client, a prominent community leader and businessman, to the tragic death of a confused, inebriated, old woman, who regularly wandered into the path of traffic on that particular stretch of well-traveled highway.”
And then, with something like a magician’s skill, Lehman suggested that the trial was an unfortunate inconvenience for everyone involved. “Regardless of your verdict, I want to apologize to you ladies and gentlemen for wasting your valuable time here today, with what amounts to a case of wrongful arrest and slanderous libel against my client.” Pointing an accusing finger at Huston, he added, “I say, ‘wasted’ because the DA’s entire case against my client is hopelessly incompetent. Good people, I believe there is only one verdict you can deliver that serves any hope of real justice for the late Mrs. Blankenship, and that is to find Gerry Hartley, ‘NOT GUILTY.’”
After a brief deliberation, the jury unanimously agreed. Hartley went free.
Eli was dismayed, but not surprised by the verdict. Lehman won by destroying his credibility, and likely ending his brief career as county sheriff.
On the steps of the courthouse, Hartley and Lehman talked to reporters, while Eli’s predecessor, former sheriff Rudy Hackenberg stood near Hartley to show his support.
A reporter asked if Lehman thought Martin was fit for his job as county sheriff.
“I’m sure Martin’s investigation was by the book, his book, anyway,” Lehman said to laughter. “Did he arrest the right person? Unfortunately, no—as the jury and a court of law has just shown. But, to answer your question, is he flat-out fit to be sheriff? Let me say that the sheriff’s actions were terribly misguided. Regardless of his ongoing mental health issues—which may have affected his judgement—we have to ask ourselves, how can Sheriff Martin protect us from the bad guys, when he wastes law enforcement resources, and our hard-earned tax money, by arresting honest citizens?”
There was a flurry of more questions and requests for photographs of Lehman and Hartley smiling and shaking hands, which allowed Eli to make his way unnoticed down the court house stairs to the street.
Someone had painted “WACKO” in red across the rear window of his cruiser. The used can of spray paint left behind on the trunk, a token of defiance. He had no doubt that one of his deputies was responsible. He had special ordered the car his first week in office, claiming Hackenberg’s former cruiser was “used and abused, and no longer safe at high speeds.”
In deference to the newly elected sheriff, the budget for the high-performance white Dodge Monaco with “Prominence County Sheriff” shields emblazoned on both sides was grudgingly approved. The deputies, most of whom were still loyal to Hackenberg, referred to the Dodge as “The Great White Hope” and joked that it consumed more gas in a month than the department’s entire fleet.
Eli drove to a carwash, where he brooded inside the car while it moved slowly through the scrubbers. That bastard Hackenberg is behind this, he thought. He’s never gotten over losing the election, and he won’t stop his campaign to oust me until he’s sheriff again.
“If, by some miracle, you win the goddamned election,” Hackenberg had advised him, after their one and only election debate at the Sardis Springs High School, “don’t expect much in the way of serious crime with a capital C. We don’t call this valley ‘God’s Country’ for nothing. Under my watch, this county experienced the lowest crime rate per capita in the entire state, and that’s a fucking fact.”
At sixty, Hackenberg was not ready to retire. Counting on his reputation to keep him in office for another four years, he neglected to consider that, man for man, experienced or not, Hackenberg was no match for his younger opponent, who, at thirty-four, was a combat-ready former marine, who possessed the charisma and rugged good looks endowed to born leaders and con men.
As the election date loomed closer, and his odds of winning reelection dwindled, Hackenberg started an aggressive slur campaign, characterizing Eli’s warning about a coming crime wave as the ravings of “a chickenshit alarmist and fear monger.”
Eli remained in the race undaunted and continued preaching his message to ever increasing crowds. “Hardcore criminal elements—drug traffickers and vicious gangs are being driven out of the big cities,” Eli warned, speaking with all of the conviction and hellfire of a revivalist. “They’re on their way here, friends. And you’ve got Sheriff Hackenberg to thank for that sad news. Because the crooks have heard the pickings are easy in rural America. Especially here in Prominence County, where Rudy Hackenberg spent the last twenty years going easy on crime.”
And then, like the natural performer he was, Eli leaned close to the mic to deliver his winning pitch. “Make me your sheriff, and I pledge to stop crime at the county line—one way or another. Remember, a vote for Martin, is a vote against crime.”
In the days before the election, a small army of volunteers, mostly female, papered the county with posters and yard signs bearing the slogan, “Martin for God and County,” emblazoned against an image of the former US Marine Sergeant dressed in camouflage gear from head to toe, M-16 at the ready. On election day, Eli’s apocalyptic vision of unleashed criminal hoards roaring into the valley to rape and pillage its residents hit home with the solidly white conservative electorate. His victory was a landslide.
Eli was in no mood to face his deputies who were probably jubilant after learning that their boss was crazy as a loon, so he headed home.
His first order of business after becoming sheriff was to purchase ten secluded acres along the Prominence River in the wilderness area north of Sardis Springs. The property’s overgrown entrance was marked only with a wooden sign proclaiming, “NO TRESPASSING.” The only way into, or out of, what he called his campsite, was a rutted trail that meandered for a quarter mile through the pine woods, one which he bushwhacked himself using a chainsaw and a machete.
It was still light when he turned off the highway and drove through the woods to his campsite with its pristine view of the Prominence River, and just enough room to park his camper—for now, the only home he needed. Keep it simple was a daily mantra in the disciplined world he had fashioned for himself.
Eli shed his uniform for shorts and running shoes. His run, most of it uphill, helped him dissipate his anger and regain his balance. The sun was setting by the time he returned from his run. His only convenience besides electricity was running water. The well had cost him, but the luxury of a hot shower was worth it.
Afterwards, Eli pulled a beer from his ice chest and made for his favorite river lookout, a flat granite slab wide and flat enough to land a Huey. He drank his beer and listened to the river flowing steadily below him, its Lilliputian waves splashing nosily against the rock strewn shoreline.
Eli finished the beer and set the empty bottle down. He lay back on the cool stone. As far as he could see the sky was so black he could make out the Milky Way, and from time to time, like celestial tracer rounds, the fiery trails of meteors falling earthward from the Perseids reminded him of one night in the Congo a million years and another lifetime ago, when he was beside another river, waiting to die. The nightmares spawned then no longer haunted him as they had for years. It was the drugs he took, man-made pharmacological wonder pills—not magic or prayer— that chased away the demons.
He fell asleep where he lay. At one point during his fitful night, he moaned and rolled onto his side sending the empty beer bottle over the edge and into the river, where it slowly filled with water and disappeared.